The La Liga round 32 match between Atlético Madrid and Deportivo Alavés was an important match for both sides, especially for the hosts, who were looking to solidify their third spot in the table. It was also interesting to see whether this short-passing version of Los Colchoneros could break down Alavés’ low block in a convincing manner. Alavés were clearly the inferior side and only looked to bring home one point from the Wanda Metropolitano.
Atleti (4-4-2): Jan Oblak; Renan Lodi, José Giménez, Stefan Savić, Kieran Trippier; Koke, Saúl Ñíguez, Thomas Partey, Ángel Correa; Álvaro Morata, João Félix.
Deportivo Alavés (4-1-4-1): Fernando Pacheco; Adrián Marín, Rodrigo Ely, Tachi, Martín Aguirregabi; Ljubomir Fejsa; Aleix Vidal, Pere Pons, Abdallahi Mahmoud, Edgar Méndez; Oliver Burke.
Atleti in possession
Since football returned after the COVID-19 break, Atlético Madrid have switched from their usual long ball style to a more patient build-up style, playing out from the back. This switch has seemed to be a positive change, as the side has won most of their games since the return.
Against an Alavés side that focused on keeping a clean sheet as expected, Atleti again stuck to their new approach. In the build-up, Atleti used a 2-4-3-1 in possession, with the full-backs pushing high. The double-pivot stayed in front of the centre-backs and took charge of ball progression into the opponent’s half.
Alavés defended in a very conservative 6-3-1, with almost the whole XI in their own half as Atleti built up short. The three central midfielders and forward Burke formed a diamond to prevent passes through the centre. The diamond would only shift slightly according to the position of the ball, as a back six had already created a solid defensive structure. When an Atleti pivot carried the ball towards the diamond, the ball-near central mid or Burke would step out to press him.
The back six made Alavés’ defenders’ job of positioning much simpler. In addition, there was always cover if someone was in the wrong position. Switching the ball from side to side can’t disrupt a back six as effectively as a back four (or even back five).
Alavés’ ball-near winger would press Atleti’s widest player if the ball was passed towards his side. In these situations, Alavés’ midfield three would stretch and head towards the ball side to overload and help the wide players press. The number of men behind and around the ball made it difficult for their opponent to break the lines from out wide.
That was demonstrated in the below example, as Correa and Trippier struggled to break through the 2v2 on the right flank. Even if they did so successfully, the likes of Fejsa and Marín would provide instant cover while a few others collapsed around the ball.
Atleti tried to penetrate the opponent’s low-block by having the likes of Koke, Correa and Félix roaming intelligently in between the lines. Often it was to no avail as Alavés’ shape was both horizontally and vertically compact. Wide midfielders Koke and Correa tucked infield, while one pivot (usually Partey) joined to create a central overload. This was not a good strategy as Alavés usually had enough personnel to stop them. The visitors could easily press the ball-carrier from all sides due to their impressive compactness.
Here, seeing that Alavés’ left central mid was stepping out to press him, Savić passed to Correa, but Fejsa instantly got near the Argentinian and took the ball.
An effect of the central overload was that Atleti could often counter-press effectively, which was a simpler task due to Alavés players mostly just looking to clear the ball.
The below example is a great demonstration. After losing possession in the centre, Félix and Correa rushed towards the ball, while the double pivot instantly stepped out to limit space around the ball. The home side instantly recovered possession.
Simeone also tried to changed things with Saúl shifting to left midfield, while Koke became the pivot alongside Partey. As opposed to Saúl, who loves attempting long through balls, Koke tried to connect with his nearby teammates or look to play line-breaking passes. However, Saúl, playing as a left midfielder, was not that effective as he is not as good in tight spaces as Koke. Atleti really struggled to create chances, as none of their eight shots in the first half were on target.
Alavés in possession
Alavés were very simple in possession. Their main goal in this match was clearly to not concede. They used a very no-nonsense approach in defending, used a lot of long balls (26.32% of their passes were long) and looked to win second balls when possible. Upon winning the ball, they looked to counter as quickly as possible but tried not to commit too many men forward. They tried to attack down the flanks as their wingers (and occasionally, full-backs) would rush forward from his deep defending position. A wide central mid could also make runs into the box when the ball was about to be crossed. Overall, they created very little danger.
Knowing how poor Alavés are on the ball, Atleti pressed aggressively from the start. Their 4-4-2 was as compact as ever (see the below image). The whole shape would shift according to the position of the ball. When an opponent centre-back had the ball, the ball-near forward (Morata here) would press him, while blocking his passing lane towards the pivot. The other forward would stay between the other centre-back and the pivot, pressing either when needed. The forwards would also press all the way back to the keeper, forcing him to go long.
Here, Alavés tried to progress through their left-back. However, Atleti’s two banks of four had already overloaded the ball side while maintaining near-perfect compactness, forcing the ball-carrier to go long.
In the 57th minute, Diego Simeone brought in Marcos Llorente and Diego Costa for Correa and Morata, both of whom were invisible throughout. On paper, Costa is a better fit for Atleti’s short passing game due to his good teamwork and passing than Morata. However, the difference-maker for Atleti – as has been the case time and again after the return of La Liga – was pivot-turned-attacker Llorente. Coming in to be a right midfielder, he would tuck infield to drag the opponent’s wide players in and then made runs out wide and used his sheer athleticism to get past an opponent. After 60 minutes of defending, Alaves’ left-wing players couldn’t keep up with Llorente’s pace and power.
The ex- Real Madrid midfielder’s ball control and dribbling in tight spaces were very impressive. There were two times that he was fouled after beating his man. Both of those led to goals for Atleti.
In the below instance, Partey sent a long ball down the right flank, and Llorente made a lightning-quick run towards the ball. Despite being closed down by the touchline, he managed to carry the ball past Ely and got into the box, before being fouled by substitute Rubén Duarte. The penalty was a wrong call, but Llorente’s run was absolutely impressive.
After the first goal, both of Alavés’ wingers were substituted. The inclusion of striker Joselu and centre-back Duarte meant Alavés now played in a 3-5-2. Having an extra man up front helped the visitors to press more effectively, while the central midfielders also pressed more aggressively, as evident from Pons’ positioning in the above image.
Trailing forced Alavés to come out of their shell to press higher when Atleti tried to build from the back. They used a lot of man-marking, as shown in the below image. It was not merely a coincidence that Atleti attempted more long balls in the second half (27 vs 22), with less accuracy (64% to 44%).
After conceding the goals, Alavés tried harder to attack. Without star striker Lucas Pérez, they were not threatening at all though. They managed to score from a late penalty, which resulted from another wrong call by the referee. The match ended 2-1 for Atleti.
This analysis showed that Atleti deserved to win this match and although still struggling to break down a low block, they managed to score from set-pieces. Despite being sixth going into the COVID-19 break, it now seems quite likely that they will secure a UEFA Champions League spot.
For Alavés, this was not a really disappointing result. Though hardly creating any chances, they set up their low block perfectly. However, they struggled against Atleti’s super-sub Llorente and finally conceded set-piece goals. They are now nine points higher than 18th Mallorca and will look to earn a few extra points to stay in La Liga.